From the time Magda was a baby her mother woke up her at four in the morning every Saturday, and she took Magda and three gunny sacks full of vegetables and fruits and towels and toys and whatever else she had to sell, and they walked without talking in the dark to where the bus stopped on the side of the road. The ayudante, if he was the nice one, would heave the two bags onto the roof; and he wasn’t the nice one, Magda’s mother would lug each bag, one at a time, up the ladder attached to the side of the bus.
Magda fell asleep in her mother’s lap as the bus drove for three hours, picking up others who waited along the side of the road. So many stops that soon the seats were full and people had to stand in the aisles, and then there was no room even to stand, and boys and young men had to crouch on top on the tops of backs of each seat while touching the roof for balance, and others had to ride on top of the bus in the cold with the bags and chickens and baby pigs.
Magda’s s mother had her own space on the cement outside the market but every Saturday she made Magda hurry off the bus, afraid that someone would take it from her. When she got to the cement, Magda rolled out the mat and placed the vegetables and fruits in neat tows, and if there were enough of them she stacked them up into pyramids. Her mother liked to talk to her neighbors of many years as she flattened out the wrinkled towels and, if she had them, she would arrange the wooden and wire toys that Magda’s s father made by hand.
When the time for selling came Magda’s s mother sat for minutes at a time without moving, as did the other women selling their goods. They would never look into the eyes of a man, whether he was married or single, young or old, out of respect for their husbands who were not there; and so Magda learned too, when she was three or four years old, how to behave as a Guatemalan peasant woman in public, and how to sit close to her mother like a well-behaved baby chick.
The toys that Magda’s s father made were mostly painted yellow buses carved out of a block of wood with wooden wheels and a wire running through them as an axle; and miniature brooms he made from a stick and straw the size of a thimble tied around the end; and gardening hoes made from a stick with a bent piece of metal tied on the end. He even painted bottle caps bright colors to look like shirts and pants, and sold them.
The women all sold basically the same thing – vegetables and things like homemade towels – but Magda’s s mother sold toys, and this set her apart from all the other women who sat on the cement outside the market. Children would stop to look at the toys, so their mothers would stop, too, and sometimes they would reach down to pick over the fruits, vegetables and fruits.
Magda’s s job was to play with the toys, so everyone could see how much fun they were. If there was only one, or a few toys left, her mother would get angry, and make Magda play even harder, because she didn’t want to lug anything back home with her. And everyone in the market knew it, too, of course, so at the end of the day business always picked up as the prices went down.
Then her mother would tell day Magda to run quickly to the plaza and spread the blanket out under the awning which was theirs, and Magda did this, ever since she was old enough to run. Then she waited for her mother to come, after she had finished selling the last things.
She would drop her prices in half, and then in half again. There was no way around it. Then, if things were still unsold, she would barter with the crippled old widow who sold sopes from a little wagon she managed to pull herself.
It was dark and cold by then, and little Magda would begin to worry that her mother wasn’t going to come. Something bad happened. She had been taken away by some man and Magda would have to be alone. But she knew where to catch the bus. She knew how to get back home. Her mother would be there waiting, and explain everything to her. It had never happened, but if it Magda what to do. Get on the bus, go back home. Even when she was three years old she knew.
Then her mother would come. She always came, when it was dark and cold and it had seemed dark and cold for a long time, and Magda was hungry. There her mother was, carrying sopes wrapped in a towel. She opened the towel. They were topped with chopped cabbage and salsa. Two for Magda, one for Mama.
Then they slept, no matter what time it was, under the safe awning on the plaza, Magda snug and peacefully wrapped in a blanket hugging her mother close and warm. They felt warm because all around them on the plaza dozens of other mothers and children were sleeping just like they were, and if it rained, the sound of raindrops on the metal awning above them felt warm, too. Even when the town people walked by with their hard heels, within inches of Magda’s s fingers and toes, sound on the wooden planks was warm. The laughter and chatter coming from bars that continued on into the night was sweet, like raindrops to Magda sleeping, mixing it all up in her warm, safe mind.
Mike begged to stay home on Saturdays when the family drove their station wagon to the town twenty miles away where a variety of things were available to buy in stores. His five brothers and sisters were happy to cram themselves into the car at about 11 o’clock in the morning and off they went. At first Mike whined, and they forced him to go along. Later, he dragged his feet in the dirt, and they forced him. But still later, he grabbed hold of a chair with both hands and his brothers had to chop at his hands to force him to let go. Then one Saturday the family has a whole had had enough, and they let Mike stay home alone. “If he wants to play with the dog and kiss the cats then let him,” said his father.
Mike did pet the dog. And when Mike ran, the dog ran with him. And when Mike slowed down so did the dog. And Mike did pick up the cats and kiss them. He loved being alone. He owned the house. He was the king of his own being. The yard, the grove, all six hundred and forty acres of farmland, were his. Let them go to town. Let his brother and sisters get dropped off at the mall. Let them walk back and forth in the shiny aisles looking for friends while his parents ran errands at the hardware store, the dimestore, the feed store, the Day Old Bakery, and the PennyMart. Mike took off his clothes and ran around the house and through the garden. He put his clothes back on and ate whatever he wanted, and he made a mess and didn’t clean it up. He turned the TV on watched anything he wanted. He felt free because they – all seven of them – were gone and he had stayed. Let them pick up the kids at the entrance to the mall and take them grocery stopping, at not one, but all four of the supermarkets in town because their mother pinched pennies and clipped coupons, so there was a lot of driving and waiting and his brothers and sisters grew crabby. And Mike was glad he wasn’t one of them. He saw the trunk being stuffed full with grocery bags. He heard the others begging their dad to stop at the Dairy Queen or the McDonald’s or the A & W on the way home, and he heard his mother say, “No. We have food at home.” And he heard them whine until their dad said, “N-o spells no,” but he heard them keep whining, until their whines reached a high pitch just as they passed the Dairy Queen on the western edge, their edge of town, so their father did a u-turn – as he always did – right on the highway, and the kids erupted in cheers and shouted, “I scream, you scream, we all scream …” Mike’s heart broke. He wished he was there with them. What was wrong with him? Why was he alone? Why had he wanted to be alone? A broken boy, at the age of six? They were each allowed to order one small cone, chocolate or vanilla, or a swirl of chocolate and vanilla.
Mike wandered out to the road. He walked through the lane that was made by his grandfather, on one side a grove of apple trees, on the other side a grove of trees that cut the wind down and made the yard the middle of the prairie calm. He walked through the archway that had been made by his grandfather out of old wagon wheels, and through the hedge which his grandfather had planted, and which was now full grown, and always kept trimmed by his older brothers. He walked past the porcelain family of rabbits that his mother kept near the archway so people driving by might get a funny surprise. And he walked through the shallow ditch, always kept mowed by his older brothers, to the mailbox. He looked inside. Nothing there. He looked down the road south, in the direction that the car would come. Nothing came. Why was it taking them so long? Had they run in a ditch? Were they dead? His mind went right to the worst. They were dead. He was and orphan. He had stayed home and it had cost him his family. It had never taken them this long to get home before. They were definitely dead. He was definitely going to be alone for the rest of his life. It had cost him. He walked down to the approach to the first field on the right. He walked a little further, to the approach on the left that led to the gravel pit. He kept looking down the length of the road for dust. Dust that would signal that the car was coming and he was safe. There was dust. A car was coming. He dropped back into the corn field to hide. The dust came closer and closer. It was a strangers car that drove right past. Mike began to dry as he walked back to the mailbox, the archway, and the hedge. Another car wouldn’t come, and wouldn’t come. Then he saw dust again, being kicked up behind a car in the distance as it approached. It had to be them. He hid behind the hedge. The car slowed down, then sped up, and passed by. Mike wept. Where were they? Why was it taking so long? He went out to the gravel road and sobbed. He never wanted to be alone again. Then dust again, and he scrambled to hide again.
This time it was the station wagon, and it pulled into the yard.
Mike stayed hidden behind the hedge, drying his eyes.
He didn’t run to them.
He heard his brothers and sisters shouting as they unloaded the groceries and carried everything into the house. They were so glad to be home. They felt home was fresh and new and they glad. Mike went closer to the house. He heard, with renewed love, run upstairs to change into everyday clothes. Those pants and shirts worn soft from a week or more of being worn. They complained and bickered and shouted and pushed each other.
As Mike came walking into the kitchen the smell of groceries and fresh paper bags was magnificent.